Re-re-re-revising American History

Peter Wood

A version of this appeared in the Library of Law and Liberty on September 3, 2015. 

At its July 2012 national conference, the College Board announced with fanfare the roll out a new Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) “course and exam revisions.”  A 52-page PowerPoint directed to AP teachers extolled the achievement and laid out the schedule.  The “curriculum framework” would be available in October 2012; “workshop consultant training” would begin in spring 2013; and the course would be taught for the first time in fall 2014. 

The heralding of a new APUSH was not subtle yet outside the circle of Advanced Placement history teachers, it attracted little notice.  This changed in March 2014 when a retired APUSH teacher, along with a lawyer affiliated with a think tank, the American Principles Project, posted a short article, “New Advanced Placement Framework Distorts America’s History.”  The rhetoric was heated:  “A dramatic, unilateral change is taking place in the content of the College Board’s Advanced Placement U.S. history course.”  And the details were sketchy: 

The new Framework inculcates a consistently negative view of the nation’s past. For example, the units on colonial America stress the development of a “rigid racial hierarchy” and a “strong belief in British racial and cultural superiority.” The Framework ignores the United States’ founding principles and their influence in inspiring the spread of democracy and galvanizing the movement to abolish slavery.

I read the article skeptically, but as the head of an organization devoted to academic standards, I felt obliged to weigh the allegations against the actual standards. 

The old (pre-2014) standards fit nicely onto five pages and left most of the work of devising a course to the AP teacher.  The 2014 “Course and Exam Description,” by contrast, ran 134 pages, including the detailed explanations of how the new examination would work.  I dug in and found to my surprise that the AP teacher and the lawyer had a point.  But it struck me that the situation was more complicated than their warning flare had suggested.

For one thing the 2014 revisions (which for shorthand I will call APUSH 1.0 to distinguish them from the 2015 revisions, APUSH 2.0) conveyed more than “a consistently negative view of the nation’s past.”  That negative view was apparent, but so were two other things.  First, APUSH 1.0 set out an approach to teaching American history that radically downplayed historical content in favor of what its authors called “historical thinking skills.” Second, APUSH 1.0 set out a strong narrative of U.S. history as a story of oppressors and exploiters dominating the oppressed and the exploited.  “Consistently negative” yes; but also tightly organized around teaching a particular interpretation of American history. 

My discipline is social anthropology, not history, and while there are parts of APUSH 1.0, such as its treatment of Native Americans, that I could evaluate from an informed scholarly perspective, there were many other parts that I thought should be examined carefully by subject experts.  So I did two things.  I wrote and published a long essay, “The New AP History: A Preliminary Report.”  And I wrote to a fair number of professors of American history asking them to look at APUSH 1.0 for themselves and let me know what they thought. 

Here is a condensed account of what happened next.  My “Preliminary Report” and my emails to professors helped to touch off a firestorm of criticism of APUSH 1.0.  The activists, heartened by the show of interest, took their criticisms to a broader audience, which included the Republican National Committee, some local school boards, the Texas State Board of Education, and legislators in several other states.  Stanley Kurtz at the Ethics and Public Policy Center began to publish on National Review Online a series of well-researched articles about the background to the College Board’s decision to release APUSH 1.0.  All of this took place in the late summer and early fall of 2014.  Meanwhile, I began to publish on the NAS website critiques of specific parts of APUSH 1.0 written by the historians I had contacted. 

The College Board responded to this firestorm by deriding the critics people who favored jingoistic, flag-waving pseudo-history.  It was a low blow.  We critics were taking history seriously and expected that the College Board, entrusted with maintaining the standards for a high school course taken by nearly 500,000 students each year, would too. The critics had examined the new standards patiently and systematically.  And none of us had called for replacing them with simplistic pieties about the American past. The summit of our criticisms was a public letter to the College Board signed by 122 historians and posted to the National Association of Scholars website, June 2. 

The College Board found various academic historians to carry its water.  The critics were attacked from such heights as the op-ed pages of The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and such hedgerows as the History News Network.  But after months of this, the College Board abruptly shifted tactics.  It announced that the critics had made some good points and that the College Board would pause, gather comment, and revise APUSH 1.0.  The result—APUSH 2.0—was released July 30, 2015.  It incorporates numerous changes, some of them substantial. 

The questions of the hour are:  How substantial?  Should the critics stand down?  What next?

The answers are:  Less substantial than they first appear.  The critics should persist.  And what lies ahead are two roads.  One is the continuing effort to persuade the College Board to improve APUSH.  The other is the effort to develop a viable alternative to APUSH outside the purview of the College Board.

Why should the broader public care about APUSH 1.0 or 2.0?

The half million students who take it include many of our best, brightest, and most ambitious young people.  It is supposed to be a “college level” course and typically substitutes for one.  The ranks of the students who take it include many of the nation’s future leaders.  We should want something better for them than a glib and superficial view of the nation’s past seen through the lens of contemporary identity politics and resentments.  APUSH 2.0 delicately erases the most explicit expressions of this bias in APUSH 1.0.  But APUSH 2.0 is still written from within APUSH 1.0’s Weltanschauung

What happens in APUSH 2.0 doesn’t stay in APUSH 2.0.  The course itself directly influences how other high school history courses are taught.  The APUSH-aligned textbooks are often used in other courses too.  The College Board’s ambitious reconceptualization of AP history is part of a larger effort.  Already it has issued AP European History standards that are cut from the same cloth as APUSH 1.0, and an AP Government course is soon to come. 

The United States is negligently backing into national history standards by way of APUSH.  The College Board and its supporters are perfectly aware of what they are doing.  The creator of the Common Core K-12 State Standards, David Coleman, became the president of the College Board in 2012, promising to align the SATs and the AP courses with Common Core.  Common Core gave us a national curriculum of sorts in mathematics and English.  APUSH extends that project to American history. 

Finally, APUSH is less and less a course reserved for the talented few.  The College Board and others have been pushing for laxer enrollment standards. Why should the broader public care? APUSH will soon be the only brand of history on the store shelf. 

What’s so bad about APUSH 2.0?  Didn’t the College Board make improvements after listening to its critics?

The improvements are real.  APUSH 2.0 includes important individuals (e.g. James Madison) omitted from APUSH 1.0.  It significantly reduces the overexpression of progressive bias (e.g. World War II is no longer presented through the lens of “the internment of Japanese Americans, challenges to civil liberties, debates over race and segregation, and the decision to drop the atomic bomb,” and  President Reagan is no longer characterized as a purveyor of “bellicose rhetoric.”)  And greater attention is given to American inventiveness.

But the problems that remain are deep and systematic. 

For example, the term “American exceptionalism,” absent from APUSH 1.0, appears once in APUSH 2.0—though not in a manner that suggests the documents authors understand it very well.  “American exceptionalism” has generally referred to the idea that America was and is a new kind of nation, one founded on the philosophical principles named in the Declaration of Independence but harkening back to Governor Winthrop’s 1630 sermon calling on the colonists of Massachusetts Bay to create a community that would be “a city on a hill” for all mankind.  The “American exceptionalism” of APUSH 2.0 is undefined and undescribed, though in context it seems to mean something like ‘aggressive nationalism.’

The new treatment of “American exceptionalism” thus comes across as, at best, superficial.  It may not be intended to be a brush-off of a key idea.  Having talked with College Board officials, I’m more inclined to see it as genuine incomprehension.  The College Board writers are so attuned to the progressive worldview that they literally cannot make sense of key ideas that are repudiated by that worldview.

In a similar vein, APUSH 2.0 is deaf and blind to the roles that organized religion has played in key episodes of American life, including the Founding.  APUSH 2.0 cannot comprehend the importance of American military history or how the nation’s wars have reshaped the culture.  APUSH 2.0 tends to reduce the history of ideas and ideals to sidelights on power politics and group interests.  I give the College Board credit for reducing the overt emphasis in APUSH 1.0 on identity group politics and for reintroducing in APUSH 2.0 the theme of “national identity,” but the sub-group emphasis is merely less conspicuous.  The story that APUSH 2.0 tells is still essentially white Europeans taking unfair advantage of innocent Native Americans, Africans, and others.

As an anthropologist looking at APUSH 2.0 I’m struck by the treatment of “Native Americans,” who are presented first as “adapted” to their physical environments and then primarily as victims of European “subjugation.”  Various tribes of Native Americans were, of course, themselves masters of subjugation and genocidal wars against one another long before Europeans set foot in the New World.  There is a large blind spot in APUSH 2.0 when it comes to the social dynamics of the identity groups it favors.

Sometimes APUSH 2.0 goes astray in something as small as the choice of an adjective.  The Soviet Union during the Cold War is described as “authoritarian,” as opposed to totalitarian.  Few high school students are likely to notice the difference, but what a difference it makes! Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn apparently wrote in vain.

But more importantly APUSH 2.0 goes astray in its twin emphases on social history and material history.  The principles, concepts, and ideas that helped to create a robust national culture and that have driven American politics from the outset are not banished as they were in APUSH 1.0 but they hang like fuzzy dice from the rearview mirror of APUSH 2.0—ornaments with no functional significance.   APUSH 2.0 presents a disclaimer that it “includes a minimal number of individual names” and leaves it to the teachers to pick their own examples, (p. 22).  One AP teacher has responded by saying the standards thus “neglect the personal choices of individual men” in favor of what she calls the College Board’s “bias in favor of impersonal forces.” 

Can APUSH be fixed?  Or should critics look elsewhere? 

APUSH 2.0 could, of course, give rise to APUSH 3.0.  I was on an NPR radio program recently with New York University history professor Maria Montoya who served on the College Board committee that wrote APUSH 2.0.  When the host asked whether further revisions were likely, Professor Montoya said no.  It takes a long time for textbooks and teachers to catch up with one set of changes and introducing new ones in quick succession is a bad idea.

On the other hand, when I’ve talked with David Coleman, he has seemed eager to listen to and take note of specific criticisms of APUSH 2.0. So I am not abandoning the idea that the College Board can be nudged to make further improvements.  But it isn’t clear whether that door is open.

And fixing APUSH requires more than fixing just APUSH.  The standards are densely entangled with the tests, the textbooks aligned to the standards, teacher training, and instructional materials that schools have invested in.  Changing the standards is relatively easy; changing everything else, not so easy.  A new APUSH has been in the works since 2006.  The College Board has had a long time to integrate all the parts. 

The complexity of creating an alternative to APUSH, however, has not deterred critics who have come to believe that the underlying problem is that the College Board is, in effect, a monopoly.  Only when critics began to moot the idea of establishing a viable alternative to APUSH did the College Board switch from treating its critics with derision to taking them seriously.  It was a lesson for us critics:  competition works.  



Image: Editing a paper by Nic McPhee CC / BY (edited)

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